Anthony Wayne Girls Basketball Team Concludes Amazing Season

Anthony Wayne’s Mallori Pollock and Elise Bender compete with Reynoldsburg’s Samara Savoy for the loose ball. MIRROR PHOTOS BY KEVIN FINNIGAN
Freshman Brooke Bender steals a pass intended for Reynoldsburg’s Samara Savoy.
Senior Sophia Schneider drives to the basket against heavy Reynoldsburg pressure.
Payton Miller stuffs Reynoldsburg guard Jamiona Ross late in second-quarter action.

BY J. PATRICK EAKEN | MIRROR SPORTS — The Anthony Wayne girls basketball team’s 22-6 season has been highlighted by a Northern Lakes League championship, reaching the Division I state tournament and making national news.

Elise Bender, a freshman forward, banked in a half-court shot when the Generals defeated defending Division II state champion Napoleon, 51-50. The video was the top highlight on ESPN’s Sports Center that evening.

After the 67-48 state semifinal loss to eventual state champion Reynoldsburg, AW coach Jami Carter found it hard to express herself.

“I’ll be honest, it is really hard to put into words, especially right now,” she said. “I addressed the girls and said, ‘You know, there are things that we’ve done this season that we have forgotten about because we’ve done so many great things.’ 

“I could not be more proud of our kids and their perseverance throughout the season. We’ve won some close games. Winning the league was big and making school history. They set the bar. This is what we wanted to do and this is what our goal was coming into this season.”

While the Generals had four freshmen on their state final four roster, including two starters, it is the seniors that Carter will miss the most. They include guards Payton Miller, Amelia Womack, Maison Barrow and Zoey Ludwig and forward Jenna Rybicki.

“This is the first group of kids we’ve had as a program since I’ve had these assistants and I have taken over. They mean the world to us,” Carter said. “They believed from the beginning, as freshmen, in what we were doing. 

“Last year was rough for us as I’m sure it was for most basketball teams. They came back this year with a little edge on their shoulders. They did not get a chance last year. Payton Miller was out last year. We had some kids step up and take her place, but they had some things to prove this year.”

Miller has been a three-year starter at point guard, except for the time missed because of an injury.

“It’s going to be tough for me personally. I know as coaches we don’t have favorites, but she is just a kid who comes in and works every day. She is always a positive leader,” Carter said. 

“She has a smile on her face even when she is defending kids sometimes. We are not sure what is going through her head, but it’s great to see a one-of-a-kind kid and she is a one-of-a-kind athlete. She does not back down from any challenge.

“Those are going to be very hard shoes to fill. All of our seniors are going to be hard to (replace), but Payton leading the back for three years defensively and making sure the offense runs is going to be hard.”

The community support, however, was so good at UD Arena for the state semifinal that Anthony Wayne fans had Reynoldsburg fans outnumbered six-to-one. The AW student body filled its section and the parents and community filled one end of the arena.

The Generals loved it and it seemed to give them momentum, even when down double digits.

“I think that’s what sets them apart from most teams is that they don’t give up,” Carter said. “That’s why we’ve been able to win so many last-second-shot games – one-point games and three-point games – is just grinding through. 

“They are gamers. They love the spotlight. They love big crowds. They feed into that.”

Rybicki, who has experience playing in state final fours, even in state championships as a standout soccer player, knows how important that is on the big stage.

“In soccer we always had the community support, so it was so great to see that with basketball this year,” Rybicki said.

Carter added, “I told the girls again in the locker room, ‘We have community support and we have a great community,’ but it is a reflection on our team and how great these kids are.

“I know that you see them and what they can do on a basketball court, but behind the scenes, I have to talk about what great kids and great players we have in our program.”

Now it is on to the future for AW – a future that looks bright.

“I think we set the bar high and now and in the future we can build on it and we know now what our goal is for next year,” Elise Bender said.

“I’m just happy to have this opportunity with the team and that all the seniors can do this their last time.”

Sisters Elise and Brooke Bender, both 5-foot-11 forwards who also can play on the perimeter, have brought something special to this team and are a big reason why AW had its success. Elise is a three-level scorer who led the team in scoring 16.4 points per game.

“I think that the freshmen, Elise and Brooke both, have gotten us this far. They really were the missing pieces to the puzzle that we needed,” Rybicki said.

“We have some freshmen who were on the bench and able to get some minutes tonight, which we loved because then they can see this stage.

“From here on out, this is what is going to be our goal. We have a great eighth-grade team coming in and then we have to piece together the sophomores and juniors we have this year coming in next year. We are excited.

“This was a learning lesson for our younger kids and a great way to go out for our seniors. Even though we were one game away, I could not be more proud of our seniors. It’s surreal.”

Carter has the support of assistant coaches Jay Gast, a former University of Toledo standout, Nicole Nirschl, Raechel Kuharchek and Jake Yeckey.

“I cannot credit the coaches enough because without them we would not have made it this far,” Rybicki said.

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